Social-issue documentaries always have to find a balance between telling and selling: If a subject is really worth a movie, there's no reason to make it a feature-length sales pitch. Or an exercise in artificially created conflict. Or an act of emotional coercion, strong-arming a viewer into watching, all of which describes "Alive Inside," director Michael Rossato-Bennett's low-budget documentary about something that was at least worth a much shorter movie: Nursing home patients who, upon listening to the music they grew up with, come out of their demented state and start to resemble the people they once were. It's a marvelous thing to watch, the first, second or even third time.

But Rossato-Bennett set out to make a feature-length film, so we get more than that. We also get a strange mix of rancor and reticence. Inspired by the work of Dan Cohen, a social worker who crusades on behalf of the therapeutic value of iPods on elderly dementia patients, the movie hovers between diatribe and misplaced diplomacy. At certain times, you want to ask Rossato-Bennett "What's the problem?"

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The effects of music are obvious; Cohen is running a foundation called Music & Memory to provide players for patients who can't otherwise afford them, or don't have families to provide them. The movie complains bitterly about the nursing-home industry in general. But it fails to directly address the issue of whether nursing-home employees really want a bunch of formerly docile residents suddenly energized, dancing and making demands.

Instead, "Alive Inside" promotes Cohen's cause, and revisits the experience of Henry, a man in what seems to be the deepest recesses of dementia until someone slaps on his headphones and he starts singing, swaying and reminiscing. It's a wonderful thing to see, a magical moment that Rossato-Bennett tries to recapture multiple times, with diminishing success.


PLOT Despite years of dementia, elderly nursing home patients are brought out of their fog by the music of their youth. Unrated.

LENGTH 1:25

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BOTTOM LINE Well-intentioned, but could have been a short.